|Introduction and Specifications|
|Earlier this year, Google did something almost ground-breaking when it introduced the Chromebook Pixel. Sure, the Chromebook line as a whole has existed for a few years, but the entire premise of such a range of notebooks revolved around only a couple of design goals. One of those was accessibility, and almost by default, the other was affordability. The original Chromebooks were priced at $500 or less -- in some cases, far less. The reason seemed obvious: Chrome OS was a great operating system for those who did little more than browse the Web and connect to cloud-based services such as Evernote, but it served less of a purpose in the productivity-minded "real world."
The Pixel is about as far away from cut and dry as one will find in the notebook arena. It's built to set a precedent perhaps, but it's a machine that many will have a hard time justifying its price tag. In many ways, the Pixel feels like it exists simply because it can, and while Google must know that too few of these will be sold, it's the concept that counts. This is proof that technology companies can still produce extraordinary things that may not necessarily be adopted by the masses, yet the masses will still no doubt pause to appreciate, while the industry could very well take a few cues from a product like the Chromebook Pixel.
|Design and Build Quality|
|If Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were to be reborn in the form of a laptop, the Chromebook Pixel would be the resulting product. It's as two-faced a machine as you'll find on the market, but we're pleased to say that the positives are indeed very positive. The design and build quality of the Pixel is marvelous in every way. Without question, the Pixel stands as the marquee laptop in the modern era, and we'd argue that all companies producing premium notebooks should take a long, hard look at the Pixel. This machine has raised the bar for what consumers should expect from a high-end notebook. It oozes premium from every corner; it's simply a sight to behold.
It all starts with the gorgeous machined aluminum body. At 3.35 pounds, this isn't the lightest 13" machine you'll find though. You could suggest that it's actually too heavy for its size, and there's certainly a debate to be had there. But if the price we pay for an extra pound is this kind of craftsmanship, we'll take the extra pound. Here's a snippet of the design language from Google's own site: "Vents are hidden, screws invisible, and the speakers seamlessly tucked away behind the backlit keyboard. Open and close the lid with a single finger thanks to a finely tuned piano hinge that’s engineered to augment the range of the two Wi-Fi antennas and as a heatsink to help keep the machine cool." That all makes sense to us and we'd agreed Google hit the mark on those points.
The amount of detail here is stunning. The engineers tasked with dreaming this machine up went to extreme lengths to ensure that it would remain beautiful. It honestly doesn't feel or look so much like a computer; it's more like modern, useable art. Even the LED strip atop the outer lid streams a variety of colors as the machine wakes from sleep. Hardly anyone would actually pause to notice that, but it's trimmings like this indicate that no detail was overlooked.
While the machine was designed by Google, it was actually manufactured by Compal, and that company deserves a lot of credit. The fit and finish of the Pixel is unlike any other machine we've ever used, regardless of price. Everything is finely tuned and it truly is a joy to use and hold. Open up the lid, and there sits a backlit, chiclet-style keyboard that has now become our favorite laptop keyboard -- trumping the excellent one that sits in the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. Beneath that is an etched-glass trackpad. It's wide, it's smooth, and it's highly responsive. Much like Apple, Google has opted to leave the interior devoid of palm rest stickers, which we wish all laptop makers would do.
Along the right edge, you'll find an SD card slot as well as a slot for a Verizon LTE SIM if you opt for the pricier $1499 model. The rear is home to a stylish hinge and nothing else, while the left edge hosts the 3.5mm combo jack, two USB 2.0 ports, a mini-DisplayPort and the AC power input. The power brick itself looks like a black version of Apple's own MacBook charger, but Google uses a more conventional power plug compared to Apple's break-away style MagSafe connector.
When you fire this thing up, you can't help but drool at the 2560 x 1700 display. Unlike many notebooks these days, the Pixel (hence its namesake) boasts a 3:2 aspect ratio, meaning that it's quite a bit taller than the 16:9 machines you're probably used to seeing. We actually love the 3:2 style, as the Web is generally built using pages that scroll down, not side-to-side. This way, you see more of each page. It's a clever and useful design choice. The panel is also touch-enabled, allowing users to touch to scroll or activate. While the LCD is glossy, the coating does a decent job of resisting fingerprints and mitigating glare. The viewing angles, colors, sharpness and brightness are all exemplary. If you were impressed with the panel on Apple's 13" Retina MacBook Pro or Toshiba's Kirabook, just wait until you see this. It's the most awe-inspiring panel we've seen on any notebook to date.
It's rare that we close a design section without any significant niggles, but yet, here we are. Aside from the smallish SSD storage capacity of the Google's new high-end notebook, the Pixel is as close to mobile design perfection, from a hardware standpoint, as we have ever seen.
|Software and User Experience|
|For those who have not been following the lineage of the Chromebook, here's a brief refresher: the Pixel, like all Chromebooks, runs Chrome OS. This is a homegrown operating system out of Google's own labs, and it's a cloud-based system. In other words, few of the important elements work offline. This operating system needs to be connected to a broadband network for most of the functionality to shine through. It's a radically different view on what an OS should be, and it's largely based around the Chrome Web browser.
The Chromebook Pixel ships with Chrome OS v26, but new versions of Chrome are introduced every couple of weeks. In fact, v27 is hitting the stable channel right now, which adds a slew of improvements. Each of these updates are pushed to the machine automatically, and each are free. Google has long since said that the Chromebook will get better with age as new updates are pushed, and it has largely made good on that promise.
It's important to note that Chrome OS has evolved significantly since we reviewed the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook in 2011. Back then, Chrome OS was nothing more than a browser. No desktop, no file management system per se. Today, Google has begun to cater to demands to make Chrome OS at least somewhat similar to more conventional operating systems. Now you're greeted with a menu bar at the bottom, the ability to have multiple windows / panes in use, and the ability to re-size windows in order to have multiple applications running at once.
Most of Chrome OS' functionality still remains in the browser. For example, you cannot install an Evernote app, but you can install the Chrome Web app and keep that pinned at all times. In effect, it's just like using an app, but you access it via a Chrome browser tab. That said, there are a couple of dedicated programs, one of which is Scratchpad -- a cloud-based, syncable note taking program that looks a lot like Notepad on OS X. There's also a dedicated file explorer now, allowing you to save items (PDFs, downloads, etc.) onto the unit's SSD or onto your connected Google Drive account. Photos imported via SD card can now also be stored directly on the Pixel's SSD. It's not a fully open system providing access to local storage, but it's a great improvement from earlier builds of Chrome OS.
Speaking of Google Drive, it's obvious that Google would prefer you to use that as your main means of storage. Each Pixel owner is gifted with 1TB of Drive space for three full years. That's a huge amount of space, and it's a perk that would cost hundreds of dollars per year if buying it outright. The only trouble is that for those who really do take advantage, you'll be forced to pay Google to keep those files accessible at the end of three years. Of course, three years is a long time from now. It's likely that storage prices will sink to the point where Google can offer 1TB of Drive storage at lower rates than we're seeing today, but of course, none of that is promised.
Using Chrome OS takes some getting used to. You really have to toss aside everything you're used to seeing with traditional operating systems, and remember that everything here is driven through the Web. Instead of looking to download a .exe program, you need to search the Chrome Web Store to see if it's available. Instead of looking for Microsoft Word, you need to reach over and start a new Google Doc. Instead of saving a file downloaded from your email, you need to just point it to your Google Drive. It's a very different paradigm, but those who adjust to the learning curve will find an extremely stable, fluid experience.
Moreover, developers are now getting around to crafting more and more Web apps. Evernote's Chrome app, for example, is effectively just as good as its dedicated platform apps. Spotify and MOG enable music streaming just as you'd expect on any other notebook. You really don't notice a loss in functionality for most instances. There are myriad photo editors out there that can accomplish most of what Photoshop Express can accomplish, albeit with a bit less pizzazz. There are Web-based substitutes or versions of just about every major type of program out there. From games to note-taking apps to productivity suites, the Chrome Web Store is bursting with well-designed options. Users may have to tweak their workflows a bit, because not every program has a Web-based alternative, but we found the process to be workable.
For average consumers, Chrome OS is robust enough. For power users or those working in fields that rely on very specific applications, there's a good chance that Chrome OS will fall short for you. It wasn't too long ago that the same thing was said about OS X. Many Windows users found that specific apps just did not have equivalent Mac ports, rendering Apple's desktop OS essentially useless to them. In time, that changed dramatically, and we're assuming that Chrome OS could follow a similar path as the next few years unfold.
In closing, it's important to note that a streamlined, limited OS has one major upside: speed. A blazing SSD paired with 4GB of DDR3 memory runs a Web browser like a champion. Since there's so little going on within Chrome OS outside of your browsing habits, the machine is able to react and, in general, it "feels" very nimble. The browsing and usage experience is as quick as we've ever felt, even on flagship Windows and Mac notebooks costing 2-3x more. When you get a convoluted OS out of the way and boil things down to just the Web, it's amazing how quickly your system responds.
It's also worth mentioning that U.S.-based users who opt for the $1499 (64GB SSD) model will also get two free years of Verizon LTE included, up to 100MB per month. Registering for the free data is simple, and Verizon doesn't even ask for a credit card number. Those who suspect they'll need more data than that can buy larger packages during the registration process from within the Chrome browser. If only all notebooks offered something similar.
|Performance and Benchmarks|
|Battery Life Testing|
|We can't put our finger on why, exactly, but we met the Pixel with very high battery life expectations. Perhaps it's because we assumed an operating system that was stripped down in the way that Chrome OS wouldn't tax the system as often nor as intently, but the battery life claims for this machine are fairly disappointing. While the Intel Atom-based Series 5 Chromebook from two years ago could easily reach 6-8 hours of use, the Core i5-based Pixel isn't even rated to last beyond 5.5. And, of course, it's capable of far less than that in real-world scenarios.
Due to dealing with an operating system that doesn't allow us to load our standard BatteryEater Pro, we weren't able to do an apples-to-apples comparison between the Chromebook Pixel and other machines in its price range. That said, we were able to compare it to the $449 Series 5 Chromebook.
With Wi-Fi active (which is going to be the case if you plan on making good use of a cloud-based operating system), we managed to get 4 hours and 12 minutes of use before the battery could no longer take any more abuse. That was with the screen brightness at roughly half, and off/on typing use through an average workday. With Wi-Fi off (using this solely as a document editor), the machine lasted 4 hours and 48 minutes with the screen at half-brightness. If using LTE instead of Wi-Fi, you can expect around 20-30 minutes less than these scores. (These scores are roughly half of what the Atom-based Series 5 notched.)
This is one area that really drags the value proposition down. A premium-priced Chromebook may have been easier to justify if it performed in an all-day fashion. But, contrary to that, the Pixel lasts around half as long as the latest MacBook Air -- a machine that's both less expensive and more capable given OS X behind under the hood. There's really no excuse for such paltry battery life. Chrome OS is a lightweight system that doesn't take a major toll on the battery, so it's unclear why the Pixel is exhausted after such a short time period. Either way, the battery life reality is apt to be a major drawback for those who were still considering one up until this point.
|Summary and Conclusion|
|Performance Summary: As we've stated throughout this review, the Chromebook Pixel is really the first machine to do Chrome OS justice. Google's careful selection of high-end components ensure a fast and fluid experience throughout, regardless of whether you're watching high definition YouTube clips or multi-tasking between three instances of Chrome with 10 tabs apiece. It seemed virtually impossible to overburden the Core i5 + 4GB of DDR3 RAM + SSD combo, at least as Chrome OS stands today. Due to the unorthodox nature of the operating system, our benchmarking abilities are limited to those that can be completed on the Web. Still, we see the Pixel hold its own compared to rivals in the same pricing area, and we believe that this machine actually feels faster in real-world use than some of the numbers suggest.
It's actually quite difficult to sum up the Chromebook Pixel. From a design and build quality standpoint, there is no other notebook on the market that can top it. The machined aluminum, brilliant keyboard, responsive trackpad, and class-leading touch-enabled, super-high-resolution display panel leave precious little room for improvement. There's effectively nothing negative to say about anything dealing with design. It's the most stunning display we've seen to date on a laptop, and the trackpad is more responsive than the majority of Windows notebooks shipping right now. However, unfortunately for Google, build quality is just part of the equation.
On the software side, Chrome OS has matured in a meaningful way. Google has added a file browser, tight Google Drive integration, and multi-window support. The Chrome Web Store as a whole now hosts an impressive array of top-tier apps that actually fare quite well when ran in a browser environment. But this fact remains: Chrome OS is a cloud-based OS. It really only shines when you're connected, and that's just not always feasible. Moreover, you cannot install apps outside of the browser, so many who rely on specific programs that don't yet have a web-based alternative are going to be left out in the cold. There's also no escaping the fact that the learning curve will be steep for the average user. Most users will have at least a handful of workflows that simply do not handle well with such a limited operating system; and it's up to you to scour the Chrome Web Store for apps that can stand in as replacements. If you're looking for a machine that just lets you handle your web-based business, be that social networking, e-mail, documents, etc., you'll find a lot to love here. But every so often you'll hit a snag that can only be overcome with a bonafide OS and its various levels of support.
Despite the fact that we actually enjoyed using the Pixel more than a two-year old MacBook Pro and Dell Latitude notebook, we actually used those two machines to build this review. Why not write it and assemble it completely on the Pixel? It's just too difficult. We need specialized photo editing and resizing tools that aren't yet on the Web. We have scripts that move and swap file folders that can't easily be replicated within a Chrome browser. For as much as we loved using the Pixel, in many ways it's like a tablet: excellent for certain scenarios, but in no way ready to be your primary mobile machine.
For a $199 Nexus 7, that's perfectly understandable. For a laptop with a $1299 starting price tag, it's not. Chrome OS still isn't ready for the masses -- at least not at this price point -- and the lackluster battery life keeps it from being a serious contender even for those with ample amounts of disposable income. But for what the Pixel lacks, it stands as a beacon in engineering prowess. We can only hope that Google reaches out to OEMs and licenses its design elegance. A Windows-based Ultrabook that was machined like the Pixel would instantly gain our highest recommendations. Even the MacBook Air could stand to learn a thing or two from the Pixel.
If you appreciate art and design, and have plenty of disposable cash, buy a Chromebook Pixel. It's a joy to use and an even greater joy to handle. For everyone else, let's just hope that the design chops displayed here can trickle down to a machine that's more affordable and accessible in due time.